Sermon for Proper 21, Year A October 1, 2017

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32             Psalm 25:1-8                Philippians 2:1-13                            Matthew 21:23-32

When I first went to seminary the Gideon’s Bible contained what I considered important in the Bible.  The Gideon’s Bible does not contain the majority of the scriptures that portray God as vengeful, angry, and jealous because it does not include the Old Testament.  There are still come passages in the New Testament that challenge our understanding of a God who is quick to forgive and loves humanity.  The God who would send his own Son to redeem us.

When we eliminate the Old Testament, we eliminate the God who hardens the heart of the Pharaoh so he can inflict even greater suffering upon him and the people of Egypt.  We eliminate the God who asks Abraham to sacrifice his own son.  We eliminate the God who leads his chosen people into the promised land by slaughtering its inhabitants.   If we are careful, then, to pick out the passages that we like in the New Testament, we can all feel good about our God and rest comfortable in the promises of Jesus to prepare a place for us in the Kingdom.

When I went to seminary, I did so after having heard from a recently ordained priest that after seminary all he knew was “Jesus loves me, this I know.”  I went, wanting to be able to make sense of all the stories and passages in the Bible – Old Testament included, that challenged my understanding of a loving and forgiving God.

I quickly learned that seminary can challenge a student to the point they have a crisis of faith.  One student that began with me did not return after the first semester.  A well known and respected Biblical Scholar who teaches New Testament at Duke lost his faith as a result of his research and study.  In depth biblical study can challenge our assumptions.  I actually loved this, but I, too, struggled at times with what I learned. I understood why the priest said that after seminary all he knew was “Jesus loves me.”  Seminary challenged his core beliefs.  He did not lose faith; however, his assumptions were stripped away and he was left with what is most important.  He is, and we are, loved by our God.

Fortunately for me, I did not enter seminary with a hard and fast set of beliefs.  So, when my explanation of God and the scriptures was challenged, my biggest struggle was not to defend my position on matters of faith, but to keep myself from constructing a faith that was more intellectual than spiritual.  I am a person who can live too much in my head and fail to see and experience the love of God which surrounds me.

At this point, you might very well wonder where I am going with all this.  It was in seminary that I learned to love the Old Testament and appreciate it for what I now understand it to be.  Scholars suggest it is a history of God’s continued efforts to shepherd humanity into living lives faithful to God and one another.  We, as people, get things wrong over and over again and we see in the Old Testament that God steps in over and over again to call his people back to him.  I can see this, but it only makes sense to me if I understand it as the stories told by people – stories that reflect their understanding of God.  An understanding which changed over time, just as our own understanding of God can continue to grow and change.

These stories can be retold in a way that is more palatable to our modern experiences and understandings and we can then see the point of these stories without be overwhelmed by their apparent lack of concern for all of humanity.  This is what my Old Testament professor did, and I will be forever grateful to him.  I heard the stories in such a way that I could understand their meaning.  I also was able to see in these stories that they reflected the people’s understanding of their God – as their understanding evolved.  Today’s reading from Ezekiel is an example of their evolving understanding.

The people of Israel understood their children and their children’s children would be punished for their sins.  The proverb “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” meant simply that the children would be punished for the sins their parents had committed.  In Deuteronomy, we are taught, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me (5:9).”

Yet, the prophet Ezekiel says, “As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.”  He goes to say, “it is only the person who sins that will die.”  Ezekiel rejects the law as it is written in Deuteronomy, and says God will now hold individuals responsible for their own actions.  If we read the scriptures literally, God has changed his mind as to how he will deal with our sins.  I am not so bold as to say this did not happen, but I will say that it is entirely possible that what changed here was the people’s understanding of God and what is fair.  Throughout their reported history, God has punished the tribe for the actions of a few – now, he is saying that only the people responsible will be punished.

Personally, I view this as an evolutionary step in the development of their faith.  I am responsible for myself, I myself am answerable to God.  This is not to say that others are not affected by my actions, but it suggests that I cannot blame my parents or others for my circumstance.  I am not powerless, I can change my circumstances by responding to God and others differently.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes this same notion further.  When the chief priests and the elders of the people come to Jesus, they asked “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They come to challenge Jesus and Jesus challenges them instead.  Jesus asks them a question concerning the baptism of John the Baptist, and says he will answer their question if they answer his.  They are too afraid of the crowd to answer, so Jesus does not answer them.  Instead Jesus tells a parable about two sons. One at a time, their father comes to them and asks them to go work in the vineyard.  The first refuses, but reconsiders and does what his father asked of him.  The second agrees to do so, but does not.

Jesus then suggests the prostitutes and tax collectors are like the first who refuses to do his father’s will, but he repents and does it.  The chief priests and the elders are like the second son who is polite and respectful in word, but disrespectful and rebellious in deed.  Those whom the priests and elders consider unworthy, Jesus says, will go into the kingdom of God ahead of them because they hear God’s word and respond to it.

Both Ezekiel and Jesus are calling upon us to take responsibility for ourselves, for our circumstances and to respond to God’s call with obedience.  Ezekiel is saying that God will punish the sinner for their own actions, but Jesus is saying that God will reward the penitent.  Which also means that whatever our sins are, they will be forgiven when we hear and respond to God’s call to love God and one another.

Let us pray.

Loving and gracious God, help us to heed your call and take responsibility for our own lives.  Fill us with your spirit that we might know the healing power of your love, responding to others with the same grace that you offer unto us.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.